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Sudden wealth can leave
you rich -- and miserable

You've finally hit it big! Now what?Imagine not living for payday anymore.

Imagine life beyond the 9 a.m.-to-whenever-the-work-gets-done grind.

Imagine having all the money you could ever need.

Now imagine being miserable.

Myths and dreams
"I call it the myth of the American dream -- the assumption that money can, should and does buy happiness," says Jessie O'Neill, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee specializing in fiscal affairs and founder of The Affluenza Project.

Just the opposite can happen. Coming into a lot of money can lead to feelings of guilt, fear and isolation. It's called "sudden wealth syndrome" and it's an affliction more Americans are facing thanks to the roaring new economy and red-hot stock market.

"People develop a kind of survivor's guilt," O'Neill says. "They start to wonder if they deserve what they got. There's this feeling of almost being a fraud. 'Why me? I don't deserve it.' It's basically a discomfort, a guilt with the money."

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There's also a sense of isolation. Life beyond the rat race certainly can be grand, but it's also kind of lonely. Chances are your friends and family still have to get up and go to work in the morning. Their lives are still very much dictated by that almighty paycheck.

You're rich! Now what?
So much about this country and our very culture is rooted in the pursuit of wealth. What happens when the chase is over? What's next?

What do you do with yourself? What do you do with the money?

"It's a big one. It's a really big one," O'Neill says.

As you're grappling with your own feelings about the money and what you're going to do with it, you also have to deal with other people's attitudes toward money and their attitudes toward you now that you have it.

Will your friends be insulted if you offer to pay for dinner? Or will they think you're a cheapskate if you don't.

"Do I give different kinds of gifts to people? Do I give them the same kind of gifts I gave before?" asks Allen Hancock, cofounder of More Than Money Journal, an organization that offers counseling, workshops and quarterly newsletters for the wealthy.

"All those small kinds of interactions can cause people a lot of confusion and anxiety."

It can be awkward for everyone involved. Some new money people end up pulling away from family and friends to avoid these kinds of situations. Others never let on that they have the money in the first place.

Hiding in plain sight
Just ask Myra Salzer, president of The Wealth Conservancy, who gives financial advice to people with inherited wealth.

One of her clients is a college professor. During the school year, he lives in a college town on a professor's salary.

"Every summer he goes off to a villa on the Riviera under a different name," Salzer says.

No one at the university knows.

Another one of her clients found a more a middle-of-the-road solution. He still likes going to basketball games with the boys. The arena was located in a rough part of town. So he bought what he called his "basketball car," a banged-up, used car he could drive to the games.

"How do you go out for a beer with the guys after the game in a Lotus?" Salzer says.

The best advice for the newly wealthy
Still not convinced that these new money worries seem all that bad? Would you trade your no-money blues for these new-money blues in a second? Let's hope you get the chance.

If you do strike it rich, the best advice is to just lie low for a while. Give yourself plenty of time to think about what you really want to do.

"Find out what makes your heart sing. What motivates you? What are you called to do?" O'Neill says. "That's not an overnight thing."

As for the money, Salzer advises, "Do nothing. Park it somewhere safe and learn."

Don't forget to enjoy yourself. Money gives you the freedom to be you -- only bigger.

"When a person comes into money, it amplifies their basic personality, their basic self," Salzer says. "If they tend to be curious, they can travel the world. If they're intellectual, they can go to school for the rest of their lives. If they're hypochondriacs they can be fabulous hypochondriacs.

"If they know how to enjoy life they can certainly do that with intensity."

If you'd like to make a comment on this story,
e-mail bankrate editors.

-- Updated: Feb. 2, 2005


 

See Also
Savings glossary
More savings stories



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